Sun looks to the future with N1

Sun Microsystems Inc. shed more light on its N1 technology for making network management easier on Thursday, laying out its product direction for the next few years.

Sun has discussed N1 on several occasions this year but provided little detail on what this future strategy for network management would entail. While still keeping product information close to its chest, Sun has now announced that it will start delivering the first parts of N1 this year in the form of software that helps group together servers and storage hardware for centralized management. The company will then roll out more advanced N1 tools in coming years that automate many management processes, reducing the workload of systems administrators, said Steve MacKay, vice president of N1 at Sun.

Sun, based in Santa Clara, California, made the announcement at its SunNetwork conference, which continues here through Friday.

"Virtualization is step one in the N1 architecture," MacKay said. "It will take a look at resources in the data center and build a map of this virtual pool of resources."

Storage vendors such as EMC Corp. and Veritas Software Corp. have already embarked on this goal of giving administrators a graphical view of all the hardware in their network and how it is interconnected. The virtualization buzzword describes this abstracted view of networked hardware which should make management easier for administrators, allowing them to know how their resources are being used and where it makes sense to add in new products.

Sun wants to take this type of technology further and show not just storage systems and routers but fine-grain details about all the hardware in a network. This could include information on the total number of processors and available memory on all servers and storage systems, or guides for the best ways to route data between hardware, MacKay said.

The next technology in the N1 architecture will begin rolling out in 2003 with tools for moving applications around this virtual hardware pool. Sun will have what it calls a provisioning engine that lets customers program guidelines into their network that govern where and on what types of hardware a certain application should run.

"What you want to do is provision a service across your data center," MacKay said. "The provisioning engine takes policy-based rules about services you want to deploy, and it knows what kinds of resources the services need."

This provisioning technology would, for example, help make sure that a company's key business applications have all the horsepower they need to run at top speed.

By 2004, Sun hopes to build far more advanced automatic management tools into N1. The company plans to set up a complex web of monitors in networks that constantly check on the health of hardware components and on system and application performance. These monitors could flag potential hardware failures and not only alert the administrator about the server's condition but also move software onto a healthier system.

In some ways, N1 could become a self-learning type of network, MacKay said. The technology will eventually cater to each customer's types of hardware and applications and automatically create management policies that are best suited for this type of network.

This vision from Sun is similar to technology proposed by IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP).

"We view that HP with its UDC (utility data center) and IBM with their eLiza stuff are the principal competition," MacKay said. "We take them seriously."

Hardware vendors are trying to reach out beyond their own systems and manage gear from as many companies as possible. Sun, HP and IBM are all vying for a spot as the one vendor a company chooses for network management, according to analysts.

"Sun has signalled a willingness to manage and interact with heterogenous, non-Sun equipment, software and management control points to get this done," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., in Nashua, New Hampshire. "This is a big shift in thinking from the 'we just do Sun, ma'am' thinking of the last N years."

The vendors' combined push to manage multivendor hardware and software could eventually make end users' lives more pleasant, Eunice said.

"There is a bit of 'and then the magic happens' aspect to all of these vendors' announcements," he said. "That's because the vision or end-state they are describing is such a nirvana. But to be fair, all are delivering very useful partial payments on these visions even today."

Sun admits that the management magic will not happen over night, but the company points to the tools it has already built into products like its Solaris operating system as proof that the vision can become a reality. Solaris has some of the most advanced technology in the market for shifting processor, memory and bandwidth capacities on-the-fly between applications. Just as Solaris manages software within a server, N1 will work as an operating system for the network that is able to react to changing workloads, MacKay said.

Eventually, Sun hopes that N1 will work so well that it will undercut some of the professional services business from the likes of IBM. Customers will not need to bring in integration experts to set up their network. Instead, they will simply plug another server in when they need it, and N1 will take care of the dirty work, MacKay said.

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